With Mother’s Day quickly approaching, this isn’t just a reminder to order flowers, buy a card and book brunch for dear Mumsy; it’s also a reminder that, at least in Hollywood, moms are still trying to get out of the kitchen.
“We’ve made some strides certainly as a culture,” states University of Toronto Cinema Studies Professor Corinn Columpar. “But I think there’s a lot of holdover from the past.”
The traditional image of on-screen mothers has surely evolved since the mid-’60s when pre-feminist films like The Thrill of it All portrayed Doris Day as a mom who makes it in the working world only to concede to her begrudging husband that she wants to “go back to just being a doctor’s wife.”
However, as Columpar contends, most mainstream movies still feature maternal roles that fit into either one of two traditional cinematic archetypes: The self-sacrificing martyr (typified by classics like Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas) or the domineering mother (as in Mommie Dearest or even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).
“Think about Precious,” says Columpar of the recent Oscar-nominated domineering-mother drama. “Precious is basically all about a girl having to define herself against her mother ... that mother is short of being a monster but she’s still very much drawn in a way that’s familiar.”
Columpar adds that typically when Hollywood casts moms as central characters, “Those tend to be understood of a melodramatic tradition and that isn’t typically a popular cinematic tradition.”
“When I think about some of the most interesting, contemporary films about mothers — and specifically about the relationships mothers have with their children — they’re small films, usually made by independent filmmakers.”
Columpar points to upcoming movies Please Give and the lesbian/parental comedy The Kids Are Alright as more progressive examples of motherhood in cinema.
Still, she remains encouraged that even if maternal roles are diversifying ever so slowly, at least mom's on-screen visibility is on the rise.
“(Mainly) that has to do with, for example, the rise in Chick-Lit and its corollary in cinema,” says Columpar.
“I still don’t know if I’d say that’s where you’re finding interesting representations of motherhood, but there is a sense that the boys market is falling off a little bit.”